It’s May 2 and the RedHawks are starting practice just 18 hours after defeating the rival Cincinnati Bearcats for the second time this season.
The players begin stretching in the outfield at exactly 3 p.m. The coaches are setting up drills by home plate, so players are going through the stretches unsupervised. Sophomore outfielder Tom Kelley dances, while two other players high-five next to him. The players are loose, but focused on the task at hand. They’re just “pushing the rock.”
They’re pushing through the basic day-to-day activities of a Miami baseball player – classes, school work, team meetings, practices and games.
“Push the rock” has become the motto for this team.
“Anything can seem monotonous or anything can seem exciting based on your perspective to it,” MU head coach Danny Hayden said. “If you’re talking to a high school kid and you’re telling him that, ‘Hey man, in college, you’re going to wake up and work out, then you’re going to go to some classes, then you’re going to go hit, then you’re going to go to practice,’ for some kids, that seems like a dream come true and for others it seems like a chore.”
Hayden tries to recruit kids who see the monotony of “pushing the rock” as a dream come true. He wants his players to see the everyday grind of college baseball as an opportunity.
Part of pushing the rock is also staying even-keel, no matter the result.
“I think that’s why we’ve been able to have a better season [in 2018 compared to 2017],” Hayden said. “We’ve never gotten too high after a win and we’ve never gotten too low after a loss. We’ve just been staying in this consistent, prepared, trusting-the-process, ready to get after it one pitch at a time mode.”
If the RedHawks weren’t able to remain even-keel this year, they would’ve been in trouble.
Two key players got hurt in the season’s first 11 games. In only his second start of the season, junior pitcher Nick Ernst, Miami’s expected ace in the starting rotation, tore a ligament in his elbow. Senior outfielder Brooks Urich also went down with an arm injury two weeks later.
In spite of early adversity, the players have stayed upbeat and remained true to themselves.
“We play with our own personalities, but still at the same time, stay focused,” junior pitcher Zach Spears said. “I think when you change your personality out on the field, you’re not being yourself and that’s when you try to do too much.”
This attitude is pervasive on the team and something Hayden uses to build good relationships with his players.
“I think it’s about letting them be genuine and letting them be who they are a little bit,” Hayden said. “I can’t pretend to have a good relationship with a guy if I’m forcing him to act a certain way all the time.”
And letting a close-knit group of guys like this year’s RedHawks be themselves results in a lot of jokes and a lot of fun.
“There’s never a dull moment in the locker room,” Spears said.
Hayden said this comes from big personalities on the team. He listed senior outfielder Charlie Dauch, senior shortstop Adrian Texidor, junior outfielder Dallas Hall, junior pitcher Cole Gnetz and sophomore infielder Will Vogelgesang as the team’s biggest characters.
According to his teammates, Texidor is the happiest guy on the team. The Puerto Rican native loves baseball so much, he is often seen fielding ground balls with a smile on his face during games.
Spears and Redshirt senior first baseman Ross Haffey both agreed that Gnetz is a great guy, but might also be the quirkiest player on the team.
“I mean Cole Gnetz is a pretty weird dude,” Spears said. “He just says weird stuff.”
Gnetz’s favorite line is yelling “hot soup” whenever there is a foul line-drive hit towards a dugout.
“No one really knows what that means,” Haffey said.
But it’s not just the players who get made fun of. Coach Hayden is often on the receiving end of his team’s jokes.
“With Coach Hayden, it really is that personable relationship,” Haffey said. “You feel comfortable cracking a joke at him if he messes up. He’s pretty good at taking it too.”
There’s only one prank Hayden doesn’t like. He has a reusable water bottle he takes everywhere. Once Brooks Urich and Charlie Dauch found this out, they began hiding the bottle whenever Hayden steps away from it for a minute.
Hayden was quick to catch on. Now, he turns to Urich and Dauch whenever it goes missing.
“They know I don’t go anywhere without it,” Hayden said. “If they can get their hands on it, they try to hide it from me. It’s not funny to me. It actually pisses me off ’cause then I can’t find it and I immediately am thirsty, so I don’t like that.”
But this team isn’t just a bunch of jokers. They’ve found a successful balance between fun and focused.
“If we didn’t love Miami so much, then I think we’d be a bunch of clowns out there running around because we do have some big personalities and we do have some funny guys,” Hayden said. “And if we didn’t love baseball so much, it probably wouldn’t look like all that much fun. I think because of those two things, that’s why we play the game the way we do.”
Hayden credits his assistant coaches for helping him create the loose, yet focused culture. He and his staff lead by example through their work ethic — one that is easy for players to buy into.
The players have bought into that attitude and it’s working. Miami currently ranks second in the Mid-American Conference standings and holds a 26-15 record (11-7 in MAC). The team has already surpassed its win total from last season.
By staying level-headed, the RedHawks have won ten games in extra innings or walk-off fashion.
But on May 2, the RedHawks aren’t thinking about that. They aren’t dwelling on the recent win over Cincinnati or past games.
Coach Hayden is singing a country song while operating the Iron Mike automatic pitching machine. The machine spits balls towards Dauch, who is practicing his bunting.
Dauch fouls a ball back into the netting behind home plate and yells at himself. Junior catcher Hayden Senger joins in, telling Dauch he’s going through a “bunting slump.”
Dauch wants another chance. Hayden gives it to him. He puts the ball in the machine and Dauch lays down a perfect bunt.
The team revels in the little things — the things many players would view as chores, like bunting practice during a bunting slump.
The guys are simply having fun, playing baseball and pushing the rock.